by Louise Westfall
I get it. You hated him four years ago and you still hate him. I’ve seen a lot of hate thrown his way, but this guy is a consistent winner and an overachiever. Yes, there have been some scandals and lies, but he keeps going out there to prove the haters wrong. Not everyone wanted him in this role. But like it or not, Tom Brady is turning things around in Tampa Bay.
Well. Sorry/not sorry if this Facebook post offended you, but one of the things I have missed in our life together is laughter. Some say it’s the best medicine, and there’s been precious too little of it during the past months. Humor doesn’t mean we don’t take things seriously–it just means we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re human. All made in the image of God. And all falling far short of that divine DNA. We have much more in common than we seem willing to acknowledge.
But you wouldn’t know it from the presidential campaign and election. There was a lot of hate thrown from both sides, animus that went far beyond political differences toward moral judgments and the conclusion about one’s opponent not just that they’re wrong–they’re evil. There will certainly be unending political analysis of our divided country. But we cannot ignore its consequences. The integrity of our faith hangs in the balance.
I didn’t choose the Biblical text for our worship today. It’s the regularly-scheduled reading from the lectionary for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. But it spoke to me for such a time as this, because it also reflects a decisive moment in the life of the covenant people, the Israelites. They’re well-settled into the Promised Land. Liberation from slavery in Egypt, the decades-long slog through the wilderness, and even the battles it took to get here are distant memories. Joshua has been a great and faithful leader, and in this text, calls the community together a final time before he heads off into the sunset. A reading from the book of Joshua, in the 24th chapter, reading verses 1-3 and 14-25. Listen for God’s Word for the “after” time, when the votes have been counted and a decision has been made. What then? [Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25]
[Take a big drink of water from a Central water bottle]
You know, we designed these water bottles a few years ago to give as gifts for visitors and new members. We wanted something that was useful, earth-friendly, and descriptive of Central’s identity—that would make ’em want to return. Check, check, and check. I like to think that Central is a source for living water that nourishes the dryness of our souls and the deserts of our longing. I pray we are. We also thought long and hard about the words for the bottles–something from the Bible? A phrase from a hymn? A prayer? Ultimately we chose instead some words from David LaMotte, a Christian songwriter who performed at Central several years ago and who has dedicated his art to creating Beloved Community among God’s people. You are our neighbors. No matter who you vote for, your skin color, your faith, or who you love, we will try to be here for you. That’s what community means. Let’s be neighbors. [David LaMotte, letsbeneighbors.org]
Those words are little more than a savvy marketing slogan unless they are lived out in everyday life. Do recipients of these bottles experience this acceptance? Do we? With actual people, some with whom we agree and cheer their wisdom, and others who astonish with their divergent and contrary perspectives. Trump and Biden voters, of all demographic categories, and even the ones who sat out the election. An invitation to be neighbors, ones who care for each other and act beyond self-interest for the common good.
That’s a tall order and the election exposed major fault lines that seem almost intractable. Once you’ve judged the opponent “immoral” or even evil, no amount of evidence to the contrary can convince you otherwise. And there’s just a tiny step between regarding the candidates this way, and judging their supporters that way too. No wonder our sense of community has eroded! We know families so divided they can’t have a civil conversation without erupting into anger or tears. Sometimes they just avoid any discussion about politics—and sometimes church does that too–and what gets lost is a sense of trust and security that we belong, no matter what. We make sweeping judgments about the kind of person who would vote for Trump or Biden and affix names to match. One mother told me recently that if she WERE voting for President Trump she would never tell her young children for fear they would be ridiculed and bullied at school. A Democratic friend reported that her middle school son had been called a dirty communist and wondered what that meant? Fact is, kids mirror what they see and hear at home and in the constant barrage of media to which they are exposed.
Around noon yesterday, a friend posted a recording of the Hallelujah Chorus on her Facebook page, celebrating a Biden victory with righteous, unfettered joy. I get it. But if you listen to the words (and I hope you notice them every Easter when we belt it out as the benediction), you find that the source of joy is because the Lord God reigns forever and ever and ever. Presidents come and go. Nations wax and wane. God alone is constant, and because God reigns, we can trust the smile on future’s face, come what may. Hallelujah indeed, no matter whether my candidate won or not.
And that’s what makes today’s scripture text so important. It’s a question put to the people—every single one of us. Choose this day whom you will serve. Resolve in your heart and mind whose rule is primary in your life. Get that right, and everything else falls into its place–of lesser importance, changeable, malleable, contingent. This text is unequivocal in the choice it sets before us. Choose God or choose some lesser gods. But it’s one we have to renew again and again and again. We humans have such clever ways of making God over into our image, to serve our agendas. Joshua goaded the people a little by reminding them of their checkered history. Yeah, sometimes we get sidetracked. We’re very forgetful about the way God has brought us through danger, toils and snares.
When we choose God first, we acknowledge who our leader actually is. The One we will serve first and foremost. The One we look to for guidance and direction, and the One who calls us to our ultimate purpose. I believe it will take the power of God to unite our nation and heal its persistent divides and jagged wounds, because love and only love has the power to do so.
And here’s the thing, friends. When we choose God first, we acknowledge who our leader actually is. The One we will serve first and foremost. The One we look to for guidance and direction, and the One who calls us to our ultimate purpose. I believe it will take the power of God to unite our nation and heal its persistent divides and jagged wounds, because love and only love has the power to do so.
Our part is to choose. And when we choose the living God, we are joined to an unending source of love that jump-starts and enlarges our own ability to love. Counter to expectation. Beyond just our friendship and family circles. We will grow in our ability to love one another just as we are, to draw close in beloved community as true neighbors.
I think that means if your candidate won, don’t gloat. If your candidate lost, don’t remove yourself from the hard work ahead. But does all that means we ignore the fact that truth matters? That right and wrong are real categories? Does love mean we practice some happy-clappy version of faith that includes everybody and demands nothing? Well no. Not by a long shot. But the search for truth calls us to humility and an acknowledgment that none of us gets it right 100% of the time. We need one another and the multitude of experiences, hopes and fears each holds. The Presbyterian Church Brief Statement of Faith reminds us of our responsibility to hear the voices of people long-silenced. We will not hear them if they are afraid to speak their truth.
This is a rich moment to cultivate common ground to address the challenges and issues of this time. Can we talk?–I mean really engage in respectful conversation about what God calls us to do and become? Jesus’ own example as he forgave those who crucified him suggests that it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
There are some people at Central who are interested in trying this. They want to put together a small discussion group made up of people from many points along the political spectrum to study a particular issue–in this case, migrants and immigration, through the lens of faith. They want authentic dialog, not to persuade each other of the correctness of their position, but to understand each other. The purpose of the group is not to convert, but to engage in mutual learning. And truly, that attitude is the thing that will open us all to the transformation we need to love God and neighbor as ourselves. Please speak with me if you are intrigued by this specific opportunity, or if you are simply thirsting for a home where you belong.
In the biblical story, Joshua and the people set up a stone altar as a reminder of their choice. In the church we have a Table and a font to help us remember who we are and whose we are. But not too many of us are on site in the sanctuary these days. So I ask you to put a reminder in your home of the choice you are making every day. A candle maybe. A stone you found on a walk. A bowl which stands as a symbolic reminder of the abundant blessings God has given us all. Or maybe a good ole’ Central water bottle, to carry with you on the long journey towards God’s Kin-dom, where neighbors thrive together in peace, and love has the last word. Always. Love.